Sunday, September 15, 2019

Who's Beyond the Pale?

PROPERS:         PROPER 19, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 LUKE 15:1-10

ONE SENTENCE:        The gospel – and the love of God – is for everyone.

            The Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin are familiar stories.  So is the resentment of those religious authorities who were scandalized by Jesus’ dining with “tax collectors and sinners.”

            It is easy for us to feel such righteous indignation.  And it feels sogood.  The current political environment provides ready opportunities for such feelings – from every direction.

            Let me tell you about someone who challenged such simple solutions.

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            Will D. Campbell grew up in Amite County, Mississippi. His early days there proved to be a prolific time for that rural, poor, sparsely-populated county. Comedian Jerry Clower and writer Rose Budd Stevens were born just down the road.

            Will was reared in the Southern Baptist Church – but he was anything but typical.  He accepted a call to the ministry and, after a two-year stint in a small congregation, he became Baptist Chaplain at Ole Miss.

            But it didn’t last long.  Will was an outspoken proponent of the young civil rights movement.  The tension created by his activities led to other pastures.  He became a leader of the movement and became a close associate of many of the key leaders – including Martin Luther King, Jr.

            In fact, he was present at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the night Dr. King was assassinated.  Not fearing for his own life – which was frequently threatened – he went on with his advocacy for equal rights.

            But his iconoclastic theology – deeply imprinted in his life – would take a veryinteresting turn.

            Will described his theology in these words – which I have cleaned-up a bit: “We are all scoundrels, but God loves us any way.”

            He became a chaplain to the Ku Klux Klan.  It gave his supporters whiplash. How could he do such a thing?  What is he thinking?

            I would assume that Will assumed that people first had to hear about God, and he did that by his ministry of presencein the midst of the conflict. Will was adamant about the universal love of God: "Anyone who is not as concerned with the immortal soul of the dispossessor as he is with the suffering of the dispossessed is being something less than Christian."

            Let that sink in.

            In the 1990s, Nora and I had the father of a good friend commit some terrible acts.  We theorize that he experienced a dramatic personality change, resulting from the accidental death of a teenage daughter some years earlier.  He was accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Baptist college and using those funds to finance a secret and scandalous life.  He was convicted and sentenced to federal prison.

            Will Campbell had known this man in his years at Ole Miss. They were fellow Baptists. He was scandalized by the denomination’s and community’s reactions to the man’s actions. He penned a letter to The Clarion Ledger, the Jackson newspaper, and asked why there was greater concern about what he called filthy lucrethan there was about the life and soul of this man who had gone astray.

            That was vintage Will Campbell, who, incidentally, was the inspiration behind cartoonist Doug Marlette’s Will B. Dunn in the cartoon strip Kudzu.

            Will wrote what I consider to be the best book I have ever read – Brother to a Dragonfly.  It is a profoundly thoughtful book, and one which will have the reader laughing. uproariously one moment, and crying the next.

            He also wrote a book about his good friend and my ordaining bishop – And Also with You: Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma.

            Will was a deeply spiritual man with a theology that was both very simple and very complex:  We are all scoundrels, but God loves us anyway.

            Everyone.  Not some.  Everyone.

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            It is easy to feel pious, self-satisfied, and superior.  It is easy to look down on others. Likewise, it is easy to feel unworthy, unloved, and not-up-to-standards.

            Sadly, what is known as the human condition makes it even easier.

            On the one hand, it is tempting to take the view of the Pharisees:  To be prideful; To cast off or to ignore those who seem to be “less than”, or to criticize those who obstruct the way to the right thing.

            On the other hand, we find it easy to see ourselves as excluded, beyond the reach of God’s love, and seeing ourselves as outside the covenant community.  We know our innermost hearts and we know well the unbaptized corners of our souls.

            The Pharisees knew one experience; the tax collectors, prostitutes and notorious sinners knew the other.  Both sides were wrong. Each side was yearning for God, but they were at loggerheads.

            It is the scandal of the gospel.  The church has wrestled with that divine tension for most of its history.  Who does not qualify for inclusion?  Who is beyond the pale of redemption?

            Will Campbell lived in that tension.  He embodied the breadth of the gospel.  We cannot be good enough to earn, and we cannot be bad enough to escape the divine embrace. Everyone is welcomed at God’s tableAnyone who comes is welcome.

            It is hard for us to wrap our minds around this idea. God loves the hater as much as he loves the hated.  God loves the despiser as much has he loves the despised. He is open to both. His arms are extended broadly.

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            I’ve got to admit:  I have felt very self-righteous in the current political environment.  I make assumptions about other’s journeys. But that is wrong and not-grounded in a healthy theology.

            And I must also admit my discomfort with the idea of a God who does not base acceptance on the life the person has lived.  There are many people that I would, personally, consider not worthyof God’s love. I’m sure you have your own list.  

            I am uncomfortable with the concept that God would love Alton Wayne Roberts, who once threatened me, in the same way as he loved one of the men Alton Wayne Roberts murdered, civil rights worker Mickey Schwerner.

            But that is the scandal of God’s grace. Jesus’ example is as clear as it is difficult: He sits with the oppressor and oppressed. He challenges the norms of the culture that says one is more worthy than the other. As Will Campbell said, "Mr. Jesus died for the bigots as well". Will, seeking to live the generosity of the gospel, sat down with both Martin Luther King and later with James Earl Ray.

            All who seek God… everyone who yearns for him… will find a welcome embrace – just like the Prodigal Son.

            We are all lost sheep, on some level.  We are all lost coins, in some way.  The Good News is for us.  And for us to share with all people.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Standing on One Foot

PROPERS:         PROPER 18, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 JEREMIAH 18:1-11

ONE SENTENCE:        God seeks to transform our lives, even in the midst of                                           loss, and our task is to be open to such transformation.     

            In the years just before Jesus’ ministry, there was a prominent and well-respected teacher among the Jewish people.

            Rabbi Hillel had been born many years earlier in Babylonia – modern-day Iraq – and had come to Jerusalem to study the Law.  He became a most astute teacher.  That respect led to his being named president of the Sanhedrin – an important governing body in the Jewish faith.

            Hillel was descended from the Tribe of Benjamin on his father’s side, and from King David on his mother’s side. His teachings are studied to this day.

            He was known for his counterpoint to a more conservative rabbi – Shammai. Shammai’s teachings and interpretations of the Law would typically be more strict and legalistic.  Hillel’s would be more generous and compassionate. In most of their disputes, Hillel’s opinions would prevail.

            A much-repeated story illustrates this tension.

            A young man – not of the Jewish faith – wanted to become Jewish – a process which involved in-depth study of the Law and teachings.  There was a unique twist to his quest: He wanted to have the Law summarized by the rabbi while he, the student, stood on one foot.

            He first went to Shammai with this request.  Shammai threw him out of the house.

            So, he went Hillel, and posed the same question.  Hillel had an answer for this young man.  The essence of the Law is this, Hillel told him: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!"

            Hillel practiced what he taught – and it influenced his family.  His grandson, Gamaliel, was the Pharisee who argued for gentle treatment of the Christian disciples in Acts 5.

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            I sometimes wonder about summarizing the Christian faith – in simple, understandable terms.  I am reminded that Bishop Henry Parsley of Alabama would ask prospective clergy, “What is your sermon?”  The theory behind that question was that we allhave one sermon – and all of our sermons branch off for that essential message.

            The lesson from Jeremiah today illustrates my essentialsermon.  It is Jeremiah’s story of the Potter’s House.  Jeremiah is invited by God to visit the potter, who is in the process of forming a clay pot on the potter’s wheel.

            But the pot has spoiled.  It is poorly formed.  It is not fit for its purpose. The passage continues:

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

          God is sending a message to the people of Israel: If you do not meet my purposes, I will re-form you into a more fitting vessel for my work in the world.

          That was the message of Jeremiah in this portion of his prophecy.  It was a proclamation to the nation.

          I believe the same message is appropriate for us as individuals.

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          There is much to be discovered in the sacred stories that are found in the scriptures and sacred writings of the church.  But, if you look at the meta narrative… the over-arching theme, you will find a remarkably simple message.

          I cannot do justice to that theme in the few minutes I have here today, but I can share with you what I consider the distilled essenceof the gospel story – while standing on one foot,if you will.

          It is my belief in existential redemption:  That God is seeking to bring about new life even in the most desperate circumstances. Our task is not to obstruct his work.

          It is God’s work of transformation.  It is seen in the simple bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It is exemplified in the cross being transformed from a cruel instrument of death to a sign of hope and victory. It is as vivid as the silence of the tomb being converted to the hope for life.

          On one level, that truth is very personal.  We can allow our lives to go down a pathway of brokenness, disrepute, or alienation.  We are aware of our separation from God, others, and even ourselves.

          But we do nothaveto stay on that path.  God can transform our lives into something new – something which is more sacred, constructive, and healthy.  It can happen.  But we have to be open to it, and we cannot stand in the way.

          And there is another application of this existential redemption – the overcoming of severe loss.

          Yes, we face bitter losses.  There is death – random and sudden.  There are broken relationships.  We lose jobs.  We have financial and personal disasters.  We betray others and others betray us.  We make poor decisions which have short and long term effects.

          But allof these are subject to the redeeming work of God.  No, I am not suggesting some sort of Pollyanna-ish approach to our losses.  I am saying that God can bring new lifeto any situation.  It will likely be a different life, but it can be a life of grace and hope.

          It is all summarized so well in the burial liturgy. As we commend a soul to the resting place, we pray these words: All of us go down to the dust, yet even at the grave we make our song Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

          If God can transform the grave as a sign of hope – as a sign of eternal life – can God not transform the losses and disappointments of this life, as well?

          Our task is to not stand in the way.  To be a re-formed vessel of hope instead of a pot which is spoiled on the potter’s wheel.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Foundation of True Humility

PROPERS:         PROPER 17, YEAR C  
TEXT:                 LUKE 14:1, 7-14

ONE SENTENCE:        True humility, grounded in an awareness of being                                               beloved, is a great Christian virtue.     

            It has been said that sincerity is the hardest virtue to fake.

            That may well be true, but humilityis certainly not far behind.

            My Old Testament professor at Sewanee was a big bear of a man.  He had fierce red, blood-shot eyes, and his voice occasionally thundered like an Old Testament prophet.  We knew the times when we would should just put our pens down and cease our note-taking.  He had gone from teaching to preaching. And what he said was a gift.

            He focused an entire semester on the Book of Genesis.  It was a tour de forceof that book and an experience of teaching for which I continue to be grateful.

            But, one day he ceased his lecture on Genesis and took the class through a tour of what he called the purple passagesof the Hebrew Scriptures.  Those were the most significant and beautiful passages in the Old Testament.

            One of those purple passageswas from one of the Minor Prophets – Micah; the sixth chapter, verse 8:

He has told you, O Mortal, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

            Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.  A pretty good recipe for a well-lived and faithful life.

            The Old Testament professor, William Augustine Griffin, wanted us to internalize that passage.

            Sadly, it is a passage that is lost among many professing Christian leaders.

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            Jesus gets that point across in the lesson today.

            He has been invited to a dinner at the home of a prominent Pharisee.  The Pharisees were, of course, one of the prominent religious groups in Judaism of that time.  Pharisees were leaders in the covenant community.

            Jesus was apparently very observant.  He watched as the various guests took their seats at the dinner – some taking seats of honor, close to the host.

            It was at that moment, after watching the seating ritual, that Jesus spoke, telling the people a parable:

"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, `Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, `Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

          Jesus, like the prophet Micah hundreds of years before him, was emphasizing the importance of humility.

          It is a Christian virtue well-worth developing.

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          But… but…

          There is humility, and there is humility.

          There is genuine humility, and there is inappropriate humility.  And by inappropriate, I do not mean that which masks – though, thinly – a deep and profound arrogance.  That characteristic is artificial humility and beyond the pale. False and intentionally misleading. It is something I am not addressing with this comparison.

          The inappropriate humility, about which I am speaking, is different. It is grounded in a deficit of self-worth.  One is humble because that person does not feel worthy to be anything but humble.  It is a self-negation based on lack of feeling valued or loved as a human being.

          The person which has such an inappropriate humbleness goes through the motions of true humility – in this parable, taking a lower seat at a banquet. That same sense can lead one to not share an opinion, not speak-up, not express doubt or objection, because the person does not feel worthyto do so.

          Such a sense of inappropriate humility may come from any number of sources – being berated as a child; the indirect effects of chemical dependence in a family; or being abused or mistreated as a spouse.  There are countless sources, and a therapist can describe each scenario. The therapist has probably encountered them all.

          At the root of that humility is a tragic deficit of Christian understanding: That as a child of God, you are loved and treasured exactly as you are. The person actshumble because he or she does not knowthat Christian fact – has not heard it, does not know it, and has not internalized it.  Sure,that person thinks, that’s true for other folks, but not for me.

          But it is.

          True Christian humility springs not from a deficit of love, but from an overflowing spirit that recognizes and accepts that God’s love – despite any human experiences – is abundant, copious, and never-ceasing.  A truly humble person is able to step back from the seat of honor because that person knows his or her true worthis not dependent on a seat of honor.  That sense of worth is guaranteed and is a part of his or her foundation.

          You have heard me tell the story of the great theologian Paul Tillich’s sermon, You are accepted.  It is perhaps the most powerful sermon I have ever read.

          Dr. Tillich reaches his sermon’s climax when he talks about the fruitless and frustrating striving of the Christian seeking to prove his or her self-worth.  It is continuing, ongoing, without end. It is a tortuous struggle, and one that can only lead to frustration.

          He goes on to say:

Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!"       

          And when you are able to do that, you will have found the foundation for true humility.